Tag Archives: efficacy

Melliodora Permaculture Farm with David Holmgren

photos by Miles Marteal

On the edge of Hepburn Springs, David Holmgren, co-founder of the permaculture concept, and his partner Su Dennett, have been developing Melliodora, a two and a quarter acre permaculture farm since 1990, when it was over-run by blackberry and covered with degraded soil.  Since then it has become perhaps the best-documented permaculture demonstration site world-wide, and has been featured on Gardening Australia ABC’s Global Gardener, among many others.  Despite Melliodora’s popularity as a permaculture demonstration site, it was designed to meet the needs of a family, rather than as a demo site.  While limited to their own experimentation, idiosyncrasies and climate,  it is an authentic and mature example of permaculture in action.

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I joined in the Sunday afternoon tour on October 3. It was a crisp Spring day, and I was pleased when David Holmgren himself emerged to give us the tour.  After opening with a brief history of the farm in its present location as something of a frost pocket set low among the surrounding hills, amidst an older history of a gold rush that transformed the land, and later a keen local interest in permaculture dating back to 1978, (the same year Permaculture One was published), David explained that his family eats entirely in season.  They modify their patterns of eating to be in line with patterns of production.  “You can change your yields ever so slightly by adjusting growing techniques to push the limits of your season, but you can change your human consumption behaviors much more.”

Melliodora has 120 fruit and nut trees in a European style orchard (with geese and wildflowers coexisting beneath) chooks, geese, goats, and an intensive vegetable garden on their modest acreage.  Last year they harvested 200 kilos (440 lbs) of nectarines.  David, an intellectual who applies his academic understanding of natural forces to his practical interpretation of the land and vice versa, discussed the importance of understanding soil minerals and how mineral balance manifests in plant health or deficiency.  “Being self-sufficient,” he allows, “subjects you to your own imbalances. When you eat from the supermarket you’re subjecting yourself to a host of someone else’s imbalances.”  David and Su are constantly exploring ways to gain maximum mineral health in the soil, which David explains, is the key to plant health.  For example, calcium and boron are indicated for a plant’s ability to hold water and lettuce growers who lack sufficient copper in the soil are likely to be outcompeted in the marketplace.  Also, by understanding a plant’s mineral requirements, (e.g. calcium underpins nitrogen, potassium underpins fiber) growers can select the more appropriate mulch material for the crop being grown.  Even after 20 years of farming this land there are crops that David feels have not reached their potential due to non-deal soil mineralization and soil experimentation is ongoing.

Along the tour David also discussed the controversy of weeds in the landscape, as the “weeds or wild nature” debate.  Indeed, as touched on in my interview with the staff at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart (see Oct 13 post), this is an ongoing point of disagreement between permaculture philosophy and “nativism,” the latter perspective which is represented by many botanic gardens.  Nativism, as described by David, assumes non-native species are biological pollution.  David points out, however, that some non-natives are actually preferred habitat for native animal species, e.g. gorse, a non-native is the preferred habitat of the blue wren, and Cricket Bat willow is the preferred fodder of the ringtail possum.  He also points out that the tree violet, though a native shrub, needs high nitrogen input, defying the common perception that natives exist with little attention.  The point is about considering a particular plant from all angles of how it fits into the landscape and for what purpose, rather than choosing -or not choosing – on a single criterion.

After more discussion of economies of scale, irrigation, fire-proofing and the roles of acacia and weeping willow as fodder and multi-purpose plants, we concluded the tour with tea, comprised of a sparkling beverage made from home-grown apple mixed with Hepburn mineral springs water and a delicious apple cake.   I asked David to reflect on the historical and contemporary relationship between botanic gardens and permaculture.

“In the 1880’s-90’s, botanic gardens were really focused on economic botany and diversity of useful plants in the world.  When we got plants from other parts of the world, we gained a larger repertoire, which opened up more possibilities for creating complex ecosystems to provide for people.  However, this focus of botanic explorers from Kew got eclipsed by the rise in fossil fuel-based power, and became almost irrelevant.  Instead, more effort was put into agricultural plants that were already being invested in, like corn and wheat.  Then in the 1970’s, [at about the same time the permaculture concept was developed], there was a revival in interest in economic botany, which is one thread in common between botanic gardens and permaculture.”

“In the 1980’s, horticulture ignored the upwelling of interest in permaculture and organics.  And permaculture was generally pigeonholed in Australia.”

When I asked how this is unfolding now and into the future, David replied, “In our energy descent future, we are more dependent on how we can tweak natural systems.  For example, can we select for an oak low in tannin to produce an edible fruit like a chesnut?  Biodiversity conservation is also a huge area in which there is overlap between botanic gardens and permaculture.  For example, can we find the middle ground?  Can we look at species that are useful to people and also in need of conservation, like the Chilean Wine Palm (Jubaea chilensis) a rare plant which produces a coconut-like fruit in tempered climates?”

A reader writes…


Herb spiral at Eco Living Fair at Randwick Community Center, Sydney

“…One question for your travels.  As you see mandala gardens, herb spirals, and other popular permaculture style gardens, I would be interested in your views on how effective they are from a functional perspective….  I visited one garden last summer whose owner felt that the herb spiral didn’t really work.”

This is an excellent point, and illustrates the old adage that one size does not fit all, even in permaculture.  By definition, permaculture is a “design solutions framework” and if one strategy, structure, or implement is not working for an individual site, then perhaps an alternate approach needs to be considered.  An herb spiral, while extremely popular in permaculture gardens, is not a requirement in permaculture, and an extremely effective permaculture garden can be created without one.  Just as I suspect an extremely ineffective permaculture garden can be created despite incorporating a myriad of popular permaculture elements.  Myopic focus on a particular element within a system in the absence of adequate attention to the need for the element and how it works in tandem with the entire system, idiosyncrasies and all, risks compromising the system’s overall functioning integrity.    I would want to ask, “What wasn’t working about the herb spiral?” and  “What was the purpose of the herb spiral?” and suspect the failure of the herb spiral would lie somewhere astraddle of the answers to these questions.

That being said, I am convinced there is a serious need for research in the field of permaculture.  And lots of it.  Because science is very reductionist by nature, it is extremely difficult to adequately assess efficacy of permaculture as a whole within an experimental design.  Despite these barriers, it will be essential to consider permaculture practices through quantitative research.  Companion planting is one such practice widely used in both permaculture and horticulture, yet few quantitative studies have been produced backing its efficacy.

I will go forward with a mind to ask about function and efficacy of the permaculture practitioners I meet, but I invite all readers to reply or send me an email with your thoughts and experiences on specific permaculture practices, as well as any studies you are aware of that provide support for permaculture practices.

Permaculture at Purple Pear: Productive AND Beautiful

Just yesterday we packed up from a two day Wwoofing stint at Purple Pear Organics, a small farm just outside of Maitland, NSW, run on permaculture and biodynamic principles.  Owners Kate & Mark, who I had the good fortune of meeting at my teacher training course at PRI, have been in business in since 2006, though they were on the land long before that.

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“We really want to be a model for others,” says Kate, “as an example of what they can do with their own land.”  Though the farm is situated on 14 acres, the market garden, which supplies 20-25 families with weekly boxes of veggies, herbs, fruits and soon, nuts through a CSA, only sits on approximately 1/2 an acre.  It is no ordinary 1/2 acre, however.

There are many notable elements in this clever market garden that inspire awe and admiration, and I apparently, am not the only admirer.  While I was wwoofing at Purple Pear, one of their CSA customers stopped by with a small entourage of friends to show off the garden to.  They left quite impressed.

First, the entire garden is laid out in a mandala, inspired by Linda Woodrow’s book, “The Permaculture Home Garden.”  It is quite a singular experience to walk through a garden entirely comprised of circles, so customary are angled beds and rows of plantings.  And according to Mark & Kate, neither efficiency nor productivity are compromised with the use of the circles, but rather facilitated by the comprehensive, systems-thinking design.

Immediately noticed in the landscape are move-able chook domes throughout the garden, precisely the size of the circular garden beds: an integral part of this whole garden design.  “We couldn’t do this kind of intensive growing on this scale without them,” says Kate.  The chooks dig, aerate, eat grubs and weeds, and fertilize the beds while simultaneously providing a daily ration of (delicious) eggs.  In addition, each Manadala area features a natural water habitat to attract ecosystem services from garden predators such as frogs and lizards, and along with companion planting and continuously building healthy soil with manure and compost, the need for additional pest control is dramatically reduced.

Another unique element in this market garden is the use of guinea pigs as grass cutters, in small tractors that are moved between rows planted with garlic (in the one area planted in rows adjacent to the mandala garden).  These extremely cute farm animals are moved along the row a couple times each day, and don’t have the digging tendencies of rabbits and chickens (and their blades don’t get rusty and never need sharpening).

These are just a few of the special things you would see at Purple Pear Organics were you to visit, and hopefully you’d get to sample Kate’s delicious homemade yogurt and Mark’s beautiful cheese.  And Purple Pear lettuce is truly the best you’ve ever tasted.  Currently the Purple Pear CSA has a waiting list, however they offer permaculture courses for those interested in growing their own.